Larry Lupoe, Kyshawn Williams, and Jacobey Carter were found guilty at trial of the malice murder of Tavares Moses, the aggravated assault and armed robbery of Carlos Wilson, the aggravated assault of Deandre Miller and Jumario Booker, and related crimes. We affirm the three appellants' convictions, but we have identified merger errors in sentencing that require vacating their sentences in part and remanding for resentencing.
1. Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial showed the following. According to Wilson and Booker, in July 2012, Moses, Wilson, and Miller were staying at the Home Lodge in Clayton County while their landlord repaired their apartment, and they were selling drugs out of their room. Booker occasionally came to visit them, and he was there on the night of the crimes. On July 31, the men changed rooms, and they were checking into Room 105 when they encountered a group of three women, later identified as Quandala Kilgore, Sierra Gilliam, and Parris Stready, and a man, later identified as Lupoe, in the lobby. One of the women offered them sex for money and gave them her phone number. Later that day, the women came to their room, again seeking to negotiate a prostitution transaction. When a price could not be agreed on, the women became angry and left. In Room 105, the victims had a shoebox containing drugs, some counterfeit money,
Some time later, the women returned to Room 105. One of them knocked on the door, and when Miller opened it, three men rushed into the room. The intruders' faces were covered, at least two by hockey masks, and at least two of them had guns. The first man who came through the door began shooting towards Moses, who was sitting at the table with Booker. Another intruder approached Wilson, who was lying on the bed, pointed a gun at him, demanded money, and took his money and car keys. The intruders also took the shoebox. The men and women then fled. The victims were unable to identify any of the intruders, but Wilson identified Gilliam, and Booker identified all three women in photographic lineups.
Kilgore, Gilliam, and Stready testified pursuant to plea agreements with the State.
The women did not know the two men, but Gilliam heard one of them called Carter, and Lupoe introduced them to Kilgore as Carter and "K." Stready later identified Williams in a photographic lineup, and Kilgore and Gilliam identified all three appellants in court. When Williams and Carter arrived at the Home Lodge, Lupoe greeted them with a special handshake that Kilgore, who had known Lupoe for about a year, had seen him use with other people from the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Atlanta that he had identified as Jack City gang members. Lupoe had told Kilgore that he was a member of the gang; he had a jacket with a Jack City logo on it; and Kilgore heard Williams and Carter identify themselves as Jack City members. Lupoe told Williams and Carter about the plan to rob the victims, but the robbery did not occur that night, because the victims were not answering the phone.
The next night, August 1, Williams and Carter returned to the Home Lodge. Kilgore, Gilliam, and Stready went back to Room 105 to "scope out the scene," including the location of everyone in the room and if anyone had weapons. The women saw a man at the table with a gun, and Kilgore told him to put it away because Gilliam and Stready were scared of it. After ostensibly agreeing on a price for their services, the women returned to their room, informing the appellants that one of the men in the room had a gun. Williams said that would not be a problem because they had their own guns; he then left the room and returned with two hockey masks and two guns, which Williams and Carter kept. Shortly before 3:00 a.m. on August 2, the three women returned to Room 105. Stready called the appellants, who were following closely behind, so they could hear what happened when the women arrived at the room. One of the women knocked on the door; after it was opened, the appellants rushed in. Williams and Carter wore the hockey masks, and Lupoe covered his face with a red bandanna. Williams, who was first
The women and the appellants all ran to the car that Carter and Williams had driven to the motel. Everyone got in, and they drove away. In the car, the three men discussed their plan for Carter to sell the drugs in the Pittsburgh area and then split the proceeds between them. They first stopped at a wooded area on Conley Road where Carter threw away some things, including a wallet and a mask. They then went to Carter's house in the Pittsburgh neighborhood. The three appellants went into the house with their guns and the box of drugs and other things taken from the victims' room. Only Williams and Lupoe returned, their hands empty. Stready said that she wanted to leave, and Lupoe told her that if the story of that night ever got out, "it would be nothing to get them [Williams and Carter] to do it again." He also told her to get rid of her cell phone. Shortly after that, Stready left in a taxi, Kilgore was dropped off at her aunt's house, and Gilliam was dropped off at a MARTA station.
Bryce Swiley, in whose room Lupoe and the women were staying at the Home Lodge, also testified, corroborating the women's story about the planning of the robbery, including that Williams and Carter had guns and masks and that Lupoe had a red bandana. Swiley also identified all three appellants in photographic lineups.
After the crimes, Wilson called 911. When the police arrived at the Home Lodge, they found Moses, who had been shot five times, barely alive; he died of his wounds at the hospital. Inside Room 105, the police found four shell casings, all from the same .40-caliber Glock pistol. Outside the room, the police found Kilgore's cell phone and broken sandal. And in the parking lot, the police found a hockey mask, which DNA testing later showed had Williams's saliva on it. Kilgore, Gilliam, and Stready were later located and interviewed, and Stready took police officers to the wooded area on Conley Road, where they found another hockey mask and a wallet containing Wilson's identification card. Lupoe's nickname was "El," and cell phone records showed that a phone registered to "God El" called Carter's and Williams's phones multiple times in the hours before the crimes, including calls to Carter's phone at 11:54 p.m. and Williams's phone at 12:15 a.m. Carter also received a call from Stready's cell phone at 2:27 a.m., just before the crimes.
At trial, William Murdock, an Atlanta Police Department detective who worked with the FBI's gang task force, was qualified without objection as an expert in criminal street gangs and criminal gang activity.
Detective Murdock testified that, in his expert opinion, Lupoe was an associate of the Jack City gang. Lupoe had frequent contact with gang members in the Pittsburgh neighborhood and had admitted that he stayed at least one night at a house where multiple items of Jack City paraphernalia were found. Detective Murdock added that he was personally familiar with Lupoe, because he was there when Lupoe was arrested in 2011 in the company of Jack City gang members. The State also introduced a picture that Detective Murdock explained showed Lupoe
Detective Murdock also testified that, in his expert opinion, Williams was a member of the Jack City gang. In 2007, Williams was arrested for robbery with known Jack City gang members; later in 2007, he was threatened by members of a rival gang; in 2010, he was stopped with a known Jack City gang member with stolen items in the car; and in 2012, he was involved in a dispute with a weapon in which another Jack City gang member was involved. The lead detective in this case also testified that she printed several photographs found on Williams's Facebook page that included references to the Jack City gang and another photograph that showed Lupoe. Finally, Detective Murdock testified that, in his expert opinion, Carter was also a member of the Jack City gang. Carter had been previously stopped in the Pittsburgh area with his girlfriend Adrianna Jumper, driving a car that had a bullet hole away from an area where shots had been recently fired. When Jumper was interviewed, she told the police that Carter was a member of the Jack City gang. The appellants did not testify at trial.
(a) All three appellants contend that the evidence was insufficient to support their convictions, particularly their convictions for gang activity. Appellants were indicted on two counts of violating the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, OCGA § 16-15-1 et seq. These counts alleged that the appellants violated the Act by participating in criminal street gang activity through the commission of an armed robbery and aggravated assault of Moses while "associated with [the] Jack City Boys, a criminal gang." See OCGA § 16-15-4 (a) ("It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with a criminal street gang to conduct or participate in criminal gang activity through the commission of any offense enumerated in [OCGA § 16-15-3 (1)]"); § 16-15-3 (1) (A) & (J) (both defining such offenses so as to include armed robbery and aggravated assault); § 16-15-3 (2) (defining "criminal street gang" to mean "any organization, association, or group of three or more persons associated in fact, whether formal or informal, which engages in criminal gang activity as defined in [OCGA § 16-15-3 (1)].").
With regard to the guilty verdicts on these two counts, we conclude that when viewed in the light most favorable to the verdicts, the evidence presented at trial and summarized above was sufficient to show that the Jack City Boys was a criminal street gang, that the appellants were associated with that gang, and that the armed robbery and aggravated assault of Moses constituted criminal street gang activity and were intended to further the interests of the gang. See
(b) A sentencing error involving the merger of counts may be corrected on appeal even if the issue was not raised by the parties. See
S16A1261. Lupoe v. State.
2. Lupoe contends that his trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance in three respects. We disagree.
(a) Lupoe first contends that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to file a timely special demurrer to the two counts of gang activity. However, even assuming, without deciding, that a timely special demurrer would have had merit and that trial counsel performed deficiently rather than strategically in failing to file one, Lupoe has not shown prejudice, because he failed to show that the State could not have simply re-indicted him after the grant of the special demurrer. See
(b) Lupoe next contends that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to conduct a reasonable investigation of the case. Again, however, Lupoe has failed to show prejudice from this asserted deficiency in performance. At the motion for new trial hearing, Lupoe "failed to present any evidence as to what further research would have revealed or how any additional information would have improved his position."
(c) Finally, Lupoe contends that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to file a motion to sever his trial from those of his codefendants Williams and Carter. We conclude that Lupoe has failed to prove either component of this ineffectiveness claim.
At the motion for new trial hearing, although Lupoe's trial counsel said in hindsight that a motion to sever might have been appropriate, he was not questioned about why he did not file such a motion. Whether to seek severance is a matter of trial strategy, see
Moreover, Lupoe failed to show that if his trial counsel had filed a motion to sever, the trial court would have granted it.
Here, if trial counsel had filed a motion to sever, the trial court would not have abused its discretion in denying it. Lupoe asserts that the jury might have been confused by the number of co-defendants, but there were only three co-defendants, they were tried for almost the same offenses, the law and evidence was substantially the same for all of them, and the State's evidence was that the co-defendants acted together in committing the crimes. See id. at 388, 788 S.E.2d 353. In addition, the trial court "provided separate verdict forms for each defendant in order to avoid the potential for confusion."
Furthermore, even assuming, as Lupoe argues, that his co-defendants raised antagonistic defenses, "that alone ... is insufficient to require severance, because `unless there is a showing of resulting prejudice, antagonistic defenses do not automatically require a severance.'"
3. Lupoe contends that the limiting instruction that the trial court gave to the jury before Detective Murdock, the State's expert on criminal street gangs and criminal gang activity, testified was insufficient with regard to gang activities that did not involve the three co-defendants. However, considering that initial charge in the context of the jury charge as a whole, there was no reversible error. See
4. We next consider Lupoe's contention that the trial court erred by permitting Detective Murdock to give hearsay testimony about Lupoe's gang connections. Lupoe did not make this objection at trial, so we review this claim only for plain error. See OCGA § 24-1-103 (d). "To show plain error, [Lupoe] must point to an error that was not affirmatively waived, the error must have been clear and not open to reasonable dispute, the error must have affected his substantial rights, and the error must have `seriously affect[ed] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.'"
Even assuming that Detective Murdock's expert testimony included some impermissible hearsay — although experts may sometimes rely on and testify about otherwise inadmissible hearsay regarding their opinions, see OCGA § 24-7-703 — much of his testimony was based on his personal knowledge. This included the detective's testimony that he was personally familiar with Lupoe; his identification of Lupoe in a photograph taken in the Pittsburgh neighborhood with other Jack City gang members who were wearing gang shirts and making gang signs; his presence when Lupoe was arrested in 2011 in the company of Jack City gang members, including its leader; and that Lupoe admitted that he stayed at least one night at the house where the arrest was made and where multiple items of Jack City paraphernalia were found. In addition, Kilgore testified that when Williams and Carter arrived at the Home Lodge, Lupoe greeted them with a special gang handshake and that Lupoe had told her that he was a member of the gang and had a jacket with a Jack City logo on it. Given this ample non-hearsay evidence, we conclude that, even assuming that the detective's testimony included some improper hearsay, Lupoe has failed to show that any such error probably affected the outcome of his trial. See
S16A1262. Williams v. The State
6. Williams contends that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by not filing a motion in limine to preclude the prosecutor from referring to certain photographs of Williams posted on his Facebook page in her opening statement and to exclude the photos from evidence. The record shows, however, that Williams's trial counsel objected to the Facebook photos before they were introduced into evidence at trial, contending that the officer who obtained them did so fraudulently and that the photos should be excluded because anyone can "tag" a photograph and insert it on someone else's Facebook page. Those objections were overruled, and the trial court admitted the evidence. Williams does not contend on appeal that the trial court erred in denying those objections or that the objections that trial counsel raised were insufficient, nor does he specify what other objection his counsel should have made. Thus, to the extent that Williams maintains that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance, he has not shown that counsel performed deficiently. And to the extent that he maintains that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by not raising objections before opening statements, Williams has failed to show prejudice, because he has not identified what further objection counsel should have made that would have resulted in the photographs being excluded.
7. Williams also argues that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to move for a continuance so that he could file a motion to compel the State to provide the defense with copies of the video recorded statements of various witnesses, including his co-defendants. However, at the motion for new trial hearing, Williams did not present any evidence as to what additional information a motion to compel the videos would have revealed or how that information would have improved his position. See
8. Williams contends next that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of his prior gang activity, asserting that it was inadmissible character evidence under OCGA § 24-4-404 (b). Acknowledging that his trial counsel failed to raise this specific objection at trial — where counsel objected only on the ground that some of the activity occurred when Williams was a juvenile — Williams also argues that the trial court erred in ruling that trial counsel was not ineffective in this regard.
Due to the lack of objection at trial, we review Williams's current assertion that the trial court erred in admitting this evidence only for plain error. See
Thus, the evidence of Williams's prior participation in gang activities was directly relevant to an element of the State's case and did not constitute improper character evidence when admitted for that limited purpose (and an adequate limiting instruction was given at trial, see Division 3 above). See
9. Williams contends that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to hire a DNA expert to challenge the DNA evidence admitted against him at trial. However, at the motion for new trial hearing, Williams did not present any evidence as to what additional information a DNA expert would have offered or how that evidence would have improved his position. See
10. In his next enumeration of error, Williams contends that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to renew his objection to gang-related testimony, thereby waiving his right to contend on appeal that the testimony was improper character evidence. In Division 8 above, we explained why there was no ineffective assistance in regard to not making a character-evidence objection.
In this enumeration, Williams also argues that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the State's improper bolstering of certain witnesses. Williams does not specify the alleged bolstering testimony or attempt to explain how it was improper bolstering. It appears, however, that he may be referring to one or more witnesses who testified that statements they made to the police before trial were consistent with their trial testimony. But these witnesses did not recount their prior statements, and the statements were not admitted into evidence. Under these circumstances, we conclude that even assuming trial counsel performed deficiently in failing to object to such testimony, there is not a reasonable probability that objections would have resulted in a different outcome at trial, particularly in light of the overwhelming evidence of Williams's guilt, including the DNA evidence showing that his saliva was on the hockey mask found in the Home Lodge parking lot. See
11. At trial, Williams asked Brenton Carson — the man who visited the victims' room earlier on the night of the crimes — if he was a member of "the Blood Street gang." The State objected on the grounds of relevancy and improper character evidence, and the trial court sustained the objection. Williams now contends that this ruling was erroneous, asserting for the first time on appeal that the answer to the question would have shown that the witness was a member of a rival gang and therefore had a bias against him.
However, the substance of the evidence that Williams sought to elicit from Carson was not sufficiently apparent from the discussion at trial to preserve the issue for ordinary review. When the State raised relevance and character objections to Williams's question, he did not even allude to Carson's possible bias as the reason for the question. Instead, Williams appeared to argue that the evidence was relevant, saying that "this trial is about gangs [and] I'm allowed to ask him about any type of gang affiliation"; that his question would not elicit improper character evidence; and that he was entitled to a thorough and sifting cross-examination, see OCGA § 24-6-611(b). Based on this colloquy, the substance of the evidence that Williams now says that he wanted to elicit — that Carson was biased against him due to membership in a rival gang — would not have been apparent to the trial court. Accordingly, this claim may be reviewed only for plain error. See OCGA § 24-1-103 (d).
Under that standard, even if we assume that the trial court committed an "obvious" error in not allowing Williams to question Carson about his gang membership (notwithstanding Williams's failure to alert the court to the potentially legitimate reason for the question), he has failed to show that the error affected his substantial rights. See
12. Williams asserts that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to testimony by Detective Murdock that described crimes committed by the Jack City Boys that did not involve him or his codefendants. Trial counsel, however, testified at the motion for new trial hearing that he chose not to object to this testimony because it was not tied to Williams, and he decided to focus on challenging evidence that allegedly tied Williams to the gang. "`Trial tactics and strategy, no matter how mistaken in hindsight, are almost never adequate grounds for finding trial counsel ineffective unless they are so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have chosen them.'"
13. Williams contends that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to certain photographs that were admitted for demonstrative purposes. Because the photographs depicted, among other things, the type of signs, symbols, and clothing worn by the Jack City gang and were used by the
14. Finally, Williams contends that the trial court erred in precluding him from cross-examining two State witnesses, who were both prisoners and, according to Williams, were kept in a holding cell together during a trial recess, about whether they discussed their testimony with each other. Even assuming the trial court erred, however, any error was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of Williams's guilt.
S16A1263. Carter v. The State.
15. Carter contends that the trial court erred in permitting Detective Murdock to testify inaccurately on direct examination that two guns and a large amount of cash were found in Carter's car when he was stopped in the Pittsburgh neighborhood with his girlfriend, driving a car that had a bullet hole in it away from an area where shots had recently been fired. Carter did not object to this testimony, and we therefore review it only for plain error. See OCGA § 24-1-103 (d). On cross-examination, Detective Murdock admitted that the items were not actually found in Carter's car, but in another car that was driving away from the scene of the shooting at the same time; the detective apologized for the mistake. There was no obvious legal error — the trial court could not divine that the initial testimony was inaccurate without an objection on that point — and because the witness admitted his mistake and made clear that the guns were not in Carter's car, Carter also cannot show that the testimony probably affected the outcome of the trial. He therefore has failed to show plain error. See
Carter claims that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by failing to seek a mistrial when Detective Murdock admitted his mistake. Putting aside whether counsel performed deficiently in not moving for a mistrial, Carter cannot satisfy the prejudice prong of the ineffectiveness test. See
16. Carter next claims that the trial court erred in permitting Detective Murdock to testify that Carter's girlfriend told the police in an interview that he was a member of the Jack City gang. Carter now contends that the detective's testimony was inadmissible hearsay and violated his constitutional right of confrontation because his girlfriend's statement was given during a police interview and was testimonial in nature. Once again, no objection was made to this testimony, so we review it only for plain error, although Carter also claims that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to the testimony.
We conclude that Carter has not shown the harm required for plain error, see
17. Carter asserts that the evidence of Lupoe's and Williams's gang affiliations and activities unduly prejudiced the jury against him and denied him due process. To the extent that Carter is contending that the trial court made an evidentiary error in not excluding this evidence on the ground of prejudice, see OCGA § 24-4-403 (saying that "[r]elevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice"), he made no such objection at trial. The issue is therefore reviewable only for plain error. See OCGA § 24-1-103 (d). Because the evidence of Lupoe's and Williams's gang affiliations and activities was relevant to the gang-related counts of the indictment, see
18. Carter contends that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to file a motion to sever his trial from those of Lupoe and Williams, asserting that a severance motion was required due to the spillover effect on him of the gang evidence against his codefendants. At the motion for new trial hearing, trial counsel testified that she did not file a motion to sever because she did not believe that the gang evidence was strong and she believed that there would not be a spillover effect. Because we cannot say that this strategic decision was so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have made it, see
19. Finally, Carter alleges that the trial court erred in sustaining the State's objection that his question to a State's witness on recross-examination was improper because it was outside the scope of the redirect examination. Our review of the record, however, shows that the trial court did not sustain the State's objection. On recross of a detective, Carter's counsel asked if, "[o]ut of all the evidence that you have collected that's here, did any evidence come back to Jacobey Carter?" When the State objected on the ground that the question was outside the scope of the redirect examination, Carter's counsel said that she was "just asking [the detective] based on ... her investigation." The trial court responded that the State's objection was based on the question being "outside the scope of ... her redirect." Carter's counsel then said, "No further questions." Because the record shows that the trial court was asking Carter's counsel to respond to the State's objection, not sustaining it, and counsel simply dropped the matter, this enumeration presents nothing for review.
All the Justices concur.
Lupoe, Williams, and Carter were tried together from November 11 to 19, 2013. The jury found the appellants guilty of all charges with the exception of Lupoe's acquittal on the count of possession of a weapon during the commission of a crime. The appellants were sentenced on January 10, 2014. The trial court sentenced Lupoe and Williams to life in prison without the possibility of parole for malice murder, life for the armed robbery of Wilson, and 20 years each for the aggravated assaults of Wilson, Miller, and Booker, all to be served concurrently. The court also sentenced Williams to a consecutive five year term for possession of a weapon during the commission of a crime. The court sentenced Carter to life in prison for malice murder and 20 years each for the armed robbery of Wilson and the aggravated assaults of Miller, Wilson, and Booker, all to be served concurrently, along with a consecutive five year term for possession of a weapon during the commission of a crime. For each of the appellants, the court merged the remaining counts (all of which were committed against Moses) into the malice murder conviction. While it was proper to vacate the felony murder verdicts, the trial court erred, as we explain in Division 1 (b) below, in merging the verdicts for armed robbery, burglary, and the two counts of gang activity into the malice murder conviction.
All three appellants filed timely motions for new trial, which they then amended with new counsel. After several continuances, a hearing on Lupoe's motion was held on May 5, 2015, and a hearing on Williams's and Carter's motions was held on June 2, 2015. On August 8, 2015, the trial court denied the motions in three identical orders. Williams and Carter filed timely notices of appeal, and the trial court granted Lupoe's motion for an out-of-time appeal, which he then filed. The appeals were docketed in this Court for the April 2016 term and submitted for decision on the briefs. They have been consolidated for opinion.